Leon & Jane Ashby
Q:Jane, can you tell us what properties you both have managed over the years?
Jane: First we started sharefarming Leon`s parents 220 acre dairy farm at Kongorong South Australia (near Mt Gambier), next we were in a 7 person family partnership running 3 properties. (2 in S.A. and 1 near Springsure Central Queensland). The enterprises were dairy, beef, wool, fat lambs, & buffel seed.
After that the partnership was split and we bought "Barcoorah" north of Aramac and ran sheep, but tried cashmere goats, ostriches, paulownia trees, and kangaroo harvesting for diversification which all had limited success for one reason or another. Now we are leasing out "Barcoorah" until we can afford some cattle to have another go, and in the meantime leasing Leon`s parent`s S.A. dairy farm again.
Q: That`s quite a variety of country, climates and enterprises. Which property was/is the greatest challenge?
Jane: All the places have different challenges, but the circumstances of extended low wool prices, 7 continuously droughted years and no extended family close by to share the problems with, make "Barcoorah" seem the greatest challenge.
Q: Leon, What sort of things have you learnt over the years?
Leon: We started looking into what the landscape used to be like firstly on our property and then across the country, and why it has changed. We also read widely and trialled different ways to regenerate the ecosystem using various tools such as waterspreading, planned / time control / pulse grazing, tree pulling (which is not the same as treeclearing) and at the moment we are looking at balancing soil nutrients and stimulating microorganisms to improve grass production (Biological farming). There is heaps to learn, but it takes years to be able to put it all together when it means a change of enterprise, ways of watering stock, fencing, and often re - financing as well.
Q: What did you find out about the previous landscape on Barcoorah then?
Leon: The first thing was the tree thickening. About 75% of the trees on Barcoorah are less than 6 inches diameter (probably less than 50 years old). This means that Barcoorah had less than 25% of the number of trees it has today in about 1950 (this is confirmed by what older neighbours have told us about areas that have become timbered now that were clear in their childhood). There was possibly much less timber than that again in 1788. Then there was the water runoff increase. At one end of the property we have a lake which has dead trees in it. Some were over 2 feet (60 cms) in diameter which obviously grew for at least 100 years without drowning in an area that no trees can survive in now, because it gets at least a metre of water there every year - even in droughts. At the other end of the property there used to be a spring on the side of a small rise, which ran all year round and watered thousands of cattle through the 1890`s drought. Since the 1960`s this spring ceased flowing. It is not fed by the artesian aquifer because there is a bore 80 metres away which has always had water at a depth of 40 metres and that was put down about 93 years ago (1908).
There is evidence that creeks have eroded and widened due to increased water run of in the last 50 years too. In one place a stone dam was built across the creek about 80 years ago but now that dam stretches across only half the width of the creek. It is likely that 120 years ago there was no defined creek bed on most of Barcoorah, only a flat uneroded flood plain. Putting all these facts together tells us the rain used to infiltrate the soil much better so that the runoff was possibly as little as 10 % what it is today and that our unconfined aquifers now have less water in them.
Tree stumps showing in the shallow water of Lake Barcoorah.
These trees once grew for up to 100 years without drowning.
No tree seedlings survive for long now with water reaching 1 metre deep in the lake every
year due to increased runoff in the small catchment.
Q: So are you both saying that the grass density was much greater before the 1900`s.
Jane: Yes and increasing grass density is what will restore our environment so that our soils become more fertile, our unconfined aquifers get more water in them, and our water runoff rates reduce. A lot of people have trouble accepting that one of the best tools we have to restore our environment is treepulling that helps establish more grass plants while controlling the tree density for a time.
Q: Why do you say tree pulling controls tree density for a time?
Leon: Well a lot of our trees regrow again from the roots, sometimes thicker than original, but mostly at 40 - 80% of the original. Then on top of that new seedlings germinate regularly and continue to grow if they are not controlled by fires. Only 15% of Barcoorah has been pulled - mostly in about 1986, and when the DNR checked it out with a satellite image recently, most of the pulled area showed up as remnant forest, it had regrown so much. In fact in a lot of Queensland, the areas near power lines have to have trees cut down or poisoned every 10 years, they grow that fast. This is quite the opposite to the dairy farm at Kongorong S.A. where there was never any trees on it originally and all the trees on the place have been planted.
Q: But surely all of Australia`s farming land was cleared of trees to some degree, that`s what we are taught.
Jane: That`s the assumption and it`s true in some areas clearing has taken place. But in other places like the Hay plain in NSW, the Mitchell grass Downs in Qld, and many many other areas , there were and in some cases still are very few trees. We simply cannot assume trees were thick across Australia.
Q: Leon, what do you think of the green movement`s emphasis on trees then?
Leon: Can I say firstly that I am grateful that there is now passion on environmental issues which is due to green groups pushing for public debates. However the over emphasis on trees is a concern. We need to look at the whole environment as one environment and ask what do we want our landscape to be like? How much grass cover?, what tree density do we want ?, how much land goes to housing?, how much to food production? and so on. Some green groups are unable to see the real environmental issues for the trees. For example which parts of the landscape are covered in tar, concrete, and exotic lawns, have no native grasses, produces most of the pollution, has few native animals, and yet gets little criticism?
Q: Are you saying the green movement has lost the plot?
Leon: I`m saying the green movement is good at getting attention drawn to issues, but when it comes to long term solutions it`s almost bankrupt. It`s good at shutting down industries and putting people out of work, but no good at creating new sustainable processes. It`s good at getting governments to commit billions of dollars to schemes, but no good at getting real results. What other group in our society is listened to claiming to be an expert on land management when it has no successful land management experience of it`s own to back its claims up with.